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To Believe Is to Achieve

Eric Horowitz

Eric Horowitz is a TASC research analyst.

Recently the term “mindset” has worked its way into the vocabulary of educators and school administrators. Based largely on the work of Carol Dweck, there’s conclusive evidence that a “growth” mindset—or the belief that your intelligence is malleable—will lead to more effort and higher achievement than a “fixed” mindset—the belief that you’re born with a finite amount of intelligence. The intuitive explanation is that if it’s possible to become more intelligent, then trying and failing will help you improve rather than provide evidence of your permanent lack of ability.

Believing that a certain characteristic can change has benefits that extend beyond the domain of intelligence. In a new study involving middle school students, Stanford’s Carissa Romero and colleagues investigated how beliefs about the malleability of emotions influence well-being and depressive symptoms, in addition to how beliefs about the malleability of intelligence impact academic outcomes.

Romero and colleagues measured beliefs about emotions, depressive symptoms, well-being and intelligence four times between 6th and 8th grade among a sample of 115 students. Beliefs about emotions were measured by asking students to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, “You can learn to change your emotions” and “You have very little control over your emotions.” The malleability of intelligence was measured via level of agreement with statements such as, “You can learn new things, but you can’t really change your basic intelligence.”

The researchers found that among students who reported low well-being in 6th grade, only those who believed emotions were malleable showed improved well-being over the middle school years. Additionally, students who believed that emotions could change reported fewer depressive symptoms. Lastly, confirming many previous findings, the more students believed that intelligence was malleable, the more likely they were to earn higher grades and take advanced math courses.

The findings highlight an important aspect of developing social and emotional skills. Just as understanding that it’s possible to improve your math ability is important for learning math, understanding that you’re not stuck with a certain emotion is important for learning emotional management. Schools or programs that aim to teach social and emotional skills would be wise to spend time ensuring that students come to believe in the malleability of their emotions.

Find resources to support and assess social and emotional learning in this newly published TASC guide.

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